10 October 2011

Those Magnificent Men in their Ground Control Stations

The Economist this week includes a Briefing on unmanned aerial warfare, Flight of the drones, subtitled Why the future of air power belongs to unmanned systems. As it points out, the al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a drone strike on 30 September, was merely the latest terrorist to be killed by use of the US remotely-piloted Predator MQ-1 or Reaper MQ-9 (above) unmanned aircraft. Such strikes are now taking place every four days. As might be expected, the article concentrates on the USA’s experience, a fair reflection of their investment, past and forthcoming.

The Economist probably went to print too early to pick up on an exclusive in Wired magazine’s Danger Room, Computer Virus Hits U.S. Drone Fleet:
A computer virus has infected the cockpits of America’s Predator and Reaper drones, logging pilots’ every keystroke as they remotely fly missions over Afghanistan and other warzones.
The virus, first detected nearly two weeks ago by the military’s Host-Based Security System, has not prevented pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada from flying their missions overseas. Nor have there been any confirmed incidents of classified information being lost or sent to an outside source. But the virus has resisted multiple efforts to remove it from Creech’s computers, network security specialists say. And the infection underscores the ongoing security risks in what has become the U.S. military’s most important weapons system.
which serves to show that unmanned aircraft are a major, but not the only, component in a very complex system. The Economist certainly recognises some of the other technical and the legal problems which the use of unmanned aircraft may present, but inclines to thinking that “the world may be just at the beginning of a genuine revolution in warfare” and concludes:
… mundane obstacles may also slow the rise of UAS. Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defence Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, DC, says that at a time of falling defence spending, UAS procurement and development may lack allies against powerful and conservative constituencies. These include sceptical military bureaucrats, fast-jet pilots, and members of Congress fighting to preserve traditional weapons programmes and the jobs that go with them. But as Mr Singer concluded in a recent article in the Armed Forces Journal: “Tough budgetary environments, first generation limits and reliance on the ‘proven’ are often crucial barriers to change, but history also shows they can’t prevent the future from happening.” Two years ago, Mr Gates conceded that the F-35 would probably be the last manned strike fighter. It may take longer than the visionaries think, but the pilot in the cockpit is already an endangered species.
The UK is certainly not ignoring the potential of unmanned aircraft, having had MQ-9 Reapers in service since 2007 and operating them in Afghanistan. As The Economist points out, the MoD’s Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre has looked at the future legal implications as well as the technical opportunities in a Joint Doctrine Note published earlier this year. In industry BAE Systems are developing Taranis (left), an Unmanned Combat Aircraft System (UCAS) advanced technology demonstrator with flight trials in 2011/12. BAE Systems are also working with France’s Dassault Aviation on a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV system, Telemos. Looking further ahead, the UK future aircraft carriers are intended to be equipped with the F-35 fighter, so presumably the deliberations of the US Navy, which The Economist reports, are being taken seriously:
As China and other countries develop more accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, able to hit moving targets 1,000 miles away, America and its allies have become worried about the aircraft-carriers they have relied upon as a principal means of projecting power since 1945. Those worries are not much helped by the carrier version of the F-35 which, without external fuel tanks, has a combat radius of only 680 miles. The US Navy’s response has been to propose what it calls the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike aircraft. It has already asked for financing and hopes—somewhat optimistically—that it will enter service by 2018. If a big, long-range UAS can operate safely from a congested carrier flight deck at sea, that would go some way to allaying fears for the future of aircraft-carriers.
Where does all this leave the world’s air forces? On 1 April 2018, the Royal Air Force, the oldest independent air force in the world, will celebrate its centennial. Although the utility of military aircraft was quite clear by the end of the First World War, the RAF was an early starter, formed by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. The French Armée de l'Air did not follow until 1933, and the USAF was formed after the Second World War in 1947. John Terraine’s, The Right of the Line, published in 1985, was regarded as having established the place of honour for the UK’s independent air force in the light of the RAF’s contribution during the Second World War, in particular the bravery and sacrifice of men in Fighter and Bomber Commands. He made the following comparison:
Some of its officers clearly, from the first, performed functions similar to those of naval and army officers of comparable grades. A great many did not. In the Royal Navy, when it is fulfilling its ultimate function which is fighting at sea, officers and men, from the senior admiral to the most junior rating, share the same iron hulls, which may at any moment turn out to be their coffins. They are all at the "sharp end". This is less true in a modern army, but still substantially true. "Sooner or later," said Field-Marshal Lord Wavell, "the time comes when Private Snodgrass must advance straight to his front." This is the ultimate moment of a soldier's war; and when that time comes Private Snodgrass will (or should) see ahead of him his platoon or company commander leading the way. To lead their men in battle is what army officers are for - not the only thing, but a very important one. The RAF is different, and peculiar.
In the RAF the fighting is done chiefly by officers (together with that proportion of senior non-commissioned officers who are entitled to wear wings on their chests, though not rings on their sleeves). By 1945, according to one authority, in an air force numbering over a million men, 17.5 per cent were aircrew; the function of the remaining 82.5 per cent was to project the aircrew (officers, warrant officers and sergeants) into battle, but rarely to accompany them. This fact clearly constitutes a major difference in officer-, or command-functions between the RAF and the other Services. (Pages 4,5)
Unlike armies and navies, air forces came into being after the industrial revolution as a result of technological progress, in particular warriors being able to take to the air in ‘flying machines’. The Joint Doctrine Note remarks that:
Manned aircraft can still provide wide utility and may, in some circumstances, be cheaper, more acceptable or more technologically feasible than an unmanned solution.
Whether, if all combat aircraft eventually become unmanned, air forces will survive as separate organisations, or whether their functions will revert to whichever is the more environmentally relevant of the other two services remains to be seen. Unmanned airframes, even if not inherently cheaper to buy and operate, are certainly more expendable, and can be subjected to greater extremes of manoeuvre than manned ones. Furthermore, since the pressure to cut future defence budgets is likely to be as severe as it has been ever since the end of the Cold War, there would be major organisational savings to be made if one of the current services ceased to exist. Already there has to be a sliver of doubt as to whether the RAF will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2068.

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